Monday, January 28, 2008

Review - Dan in Real Life

Dan Burns (Steve Carell), the lead character in Peter Hedges' Dan in Real Life, is a newspaper advice columnist, and in the language of cinema that generally indicates a person who has plenty of wisdom to offer others but who has no idea how to control his own life. Ever since his wife died four years previously, Dan has been left to raise their three daughters on his own, and while he's done a pretty good job, he's still having trouble handling the problems inherent in dealing with teenage girls. 17 year-old Jane (Alison Pill) is angry that he won't allow her to drive, and 14 year-old Cara (Brittany Robertson) is angry at his attempts to deter the boy she claims to love, so Dan only has youngest daughter Lilly (Marleen Lawston) on his side by the time they leave for a family gathering at his parents' luxurious home.

What a confusingly large family it is too. Dan's parents are played by John Mahoney and Dianne Wiest, he has two brothers (including Mitch, played by Dane Cook) – each of whom has a wife – and there appear to be a few dozen children racing through the building at any one time, although it's unclear who they belong to. No wonder Dan needs space, and when he takes time out at a local bookstore he bumps into the woman of his dreams, the beguiling Marie who, as she is played by Juliette Binoche in sparkling form, would probably be the woman of any man's dreams. There's one snag, though – Marie is Mitch's new girlfriend, and she's going to be spending the weekend with the family, which means she and Dan will have to put their obvious attraction on hold. Cue a lot of pent-up tension and plenty of scenes in which the pair are almost caught in compromising positions, and cue plenty of tortuous twists in the screenplay as writers Pierce Gardner and Peter Hedges desperately scramble to keep this thin story afloat for 98 minutes.

Hedges also directed the film and, as in 2003's uneven Pieces of April, he shows a knack for working with actors that proves to be the film's strongest suit. Every member of this cast is on fine form – even Dane Cook, a less-than-charismatic presence in films like Good Luck Chuck and Mr Brooks, manages to be tolerable as Dan's brother – and Hedges has struck gold with his unlikely central partnership. This is exactly the kind of film Steve Carell needed after going down with the ship in last year's bloated dud Evan Almighty. Dan is a likable everyman whom Carell plays with understated humour and a hint of the clumsiness and frustration that characterised his star-making turn in The 40 Year-Old Virgin. Alongside him, it seems strange to see the radiant Binoche in a film like this, but it's a rare pleasure, with her lightness of touch complementing her co-star beautifully. This couple has genuine chemistry, and that's why the contrived and false nature of the film they're starring in is such a letdown.
Dan in Real Life wants to be a comedy of awkwardness, but the film never gets the tone right. It veers from sitcom-level silliness (Dan and Marie trapped in the shower), to scenes in which Dan's emotions force him to act like a jerk, to sequences which aim to wring out the tears by any means necessary (that's the main purpose of cute little Lilly), and none of the above truly convinces. The screenplay is cluttered and overwritten, and prone to drawing lazy parallels in Dan's relationship with his girls (he tells one she can't be in love after three days, which then happens to him. He tells one she can't drive, and then she has to drive him during the hackneyed finale), and all of this only serves to highlight further how hollow the picture is. By the end of the film everything works out pretty much as you'd expect it to, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with conventional storytelling, Dan in Real Life would need to be a damn sight funnier than it is for its flaws to be overlooked. Peter Hedges doesn't exactly set high targets for himself with this film, and even with the best efforts of a perfectly capable cast, he still manages to miss those targets with dispiriting frequency.